The severe drought conditions being experienced in the West have been a source of concern for several months and have shown no signs of improvement. There are mandatory fines in California, Nevada, and other western states for watering lawns or washing down driveways. The agricultural consequences of this drought have been devastating to California with reports of crops lost.
The job market in California has been impacted as well with farming and other agricultural related jobs down across the board. The drought has effected small towns in the desert valleys and big cities near the coast, with nearly 95% of the Golden State’s population in some sort of water restriction.
Here on my blog, Frank’s Forum, I have covered the impact of the drought on Lake Mead and the subsequent water supply issues for Las Vegas, parts of Arizona, and Southern California. One of the “mega themes” of my blog is the environment and issues of sustainability, so this issue falls into both of those categories.
The media has reported recently about another controversial aspect dealing with the sustainability of water amidst the catastrophic drought gripping California at this point and that is the continued practice of Nestle to bottle water there for export to other states.
The issue is a highly charged and polarizing one with some viewing the activity by Nestle as wrong or unfair; and others viewing it as a necessary job creator and supplier of a healthy beverage alternative.
The estimates from well-respected environmental science groups are that the Western states have lost 63 trillion gallons of water during the drought. This is driven primarily by the effects of climate change on the supply sources which in turn feed the reservoirs in those states.
In California, three major reservoir areas have been dramatically impacted by the drought conditions plaguing that huge state:
- Trinity Lake = 29% capacity
- Shasta (fed by Sacramento River) = 30% capacity
- Oroville = 31% capacity
The City of San Jose recently instituted a city-wide water restriction policy for the over 982,000 residents of California’s third largest city. The restrictions include a fine of $500.00 for washing down a driveway.
Sacramento and other large cities throughout California have similar water restriction policies in place. The reservoir supply levels are so drastically low, that these policies are necessary to better protect the remaining supply of this dwindling and essential natural resource.
In my research, the local websites for news in California are covered with advertising for lawn replacement services promoting sales of synthetic grass products. It is only natural that conditions dictate a market for other businesses to provide their products or services which are driven by the demand for those products; in this case due to the unfortunate severity of the drought conditions.
Many California residents have ripped up their lawns rather than watch them wither away and die because they cannot use the water to nurture their grass and other landscaping. This action also has a conservative effect in that the synthetic surfaces will obviously help retain water supply levels for use for drinking or other critical functions. These same residents have varied opinions on the fact that one giant food and beverage company is still allowed to bottle water for sale while everyone else is dealing with shortages of this resource.
The Nestle Dilemma
The bottled water division of Nestle’, the world’s largest food company, has several brands under its umbrella. In the California desert, in Millard Canyon which is about 80 miles east of Los Angeles, is the site of the water source for Nestlé’s Arrowhead Natural Spring Water and Pure Life water brands.
The site is located on the Morongo Indian Reservation and is considered a sovereign nation therefore it does not have to comply with state laws concerning the drought restrictions on water. Nestle entered into a 25 year agreement with the tribe sometime around 2001-02.
Under the terms of this agreement, Nestle pays the tribe for the water it extracts from the site. An ancillary component of this arrangement is that the source site is exempt from local oversight and is not legally obligated to disclose the water amounts being utilized for the manufacturing of their product.
The reports from local residents are mostly negative toward Nestle because those communities are dealing with water restrictions, sewage issues, and disruptions in their water service. It is understandable that they would be upset that just down the road a huge corporation is drawing out water to bottle and export to other states across America.
The State of California has 100 bottled water facilities located within its borders, and their operation has been largely unaffected by the drought. The majority of the other water facilities have a different situation than the Nestle facility in Millard Canyon. Those production facilities have to report their water consumption activity to a state level agency. The water conservation restrictions are handled by the county level or local authorities, and they are essentially cut out of the situation when the bottled water manufacturers deal directly with the state agency in Sacramento.
It is important to mention that the other bottled water manufacturers have strong feelings regarding the Nestle deal at Millard Canyon and have aired those grievances to the media. The general consensus is that all the bottled water and beverage manufacturers should be held to the same standards for reporting their respective usage at all the facilities located in California.
This activity begs the question: Should the bottled water companies be allowed to proceed when the rest of the California is under such dire water restrictions? Should Nestle be allowed to bottle water in an essentially completely unregulated scenario on a Native American Indian reservation?
Meanwhile, CNBC published a very well done piece on this subject which explains how much water is used to make soft drinks, scotch whiskey, and other beverages.
In my own professional background working in the food and beverage industry and dealing with bottled water companies, I know that it takes water to make water. In order to make 1 liter of bottled water it takes 1.39 liters of water that is due to the amount lost during the various stages of processing.
In addition, it should be noted that the packaging used, which is also made in California, the PET plastic and the various other plastic bottle packaging uses a significant amount of water in the production process. In a place where water is in a critical level shortage it has raised debate over whether it is appropriate for this activity to continue.
The bottled water industry is a $12.2 billion dollar empire and California is a state strapped with debt and other economic problems, making this situation even more problematic on a variety of levels.
Local residents also note that Nestle has a reputation for moving into small towns and communities and draining the area of all the water supply, “down to the last drop” as one resident explains, and then moves on to the next town.
Many groups of concerned residents and environmental conservationists maintain that this sort of activity by Nestle and other large beverage manufacturers involved in bottling water should be regulated and curtailed as soon as possible.
If California were to get involved in a regulatory measure against the bottled water manufacturers, it would constrain further the economic difficulties of this state in a post recessionary period that has been very difficult. However, the larger ethical questions raised and the ecological impact involved has become the central focus of the debate in the Golden State at this point which has become more important than the economic issues involved.
Nestle responded to some of these allegations but did not comment on the questions regarding their past practices of extracting a source to the end and then uprooting out of the respective community. The company did, in fair balance, raise the point that if they were to cease operations then the people of California would be forced to choose an alternative beverage such as soda, iced tea, or beer. The company spokesperson focused on their commitment to providing healthy choices through bottled water and that they have strict environmental standards in place to remain compliant with California laws.
The Nestle plant, it was noted, was designed to prevent damage to the local groundwater supply. Though the details to how it is designed specifically were not disclosed.
The Morongo facility is on tribal land, and they are not bound to disclose information on the water usage levels there. However, for those residents that maintain that it creates jobs, the detractors would point out that the facility employs 250 people.
The fact remains that water is a precious natural resource and it needs to be safeguarded and protected during times of drought or supply shortage. The concurrent theme running through this situation is that of the effects of climate change.
In my previous work covering the dire situation at Lake Mead, the largest water reservoir in the United States, it is apparent that climate change is having a dramatic impact on the mountain streams which feed the Colorado River, which in turn supplies Lake Mead.
The changes in temperatures and environmental as well as atmospheric conditions coupled with the increased westward population migration trend in the United States, and the result is a significant problem with potentially dangerous consequences to a huge number of people. The impact of climate change and migratory patterns of several species of birds including the changing temperatures being tied to the deaths of these animals has also received increased media attention this week.
In Nevada, the state and local government agencies have worked diligently on programs focused on sustainability of the water supply through the reuse and recycling of the water in their system. Some reports I researched detailed the proposals currently pending in California regarding similar measures, though some members of the population are hesitant about the recycling processes involving wastewater, so it remains a work in progress.
I believe that recycled water technologies are going to account for a large amount of the innovations moving forward as a method to deal with the effects of climate change. The system currently in place to provide water service to residences and businesses in many regions of America leaves some room for improvement and increased focus on sustainability.
The question remains: Should Nestle and other beverage conglomerates be allowed to bottle water for export to other states during severe drought conditions where residents are dealing with restricted access to water?
That debate will continue to be a part of our national conversation but the role of climate change in this scenario cannot be overlooked. The larger question of our role in environmental stewardship will also continue to frame a much larger argument in the months to come.
(Background information and statistics courtesy of CNBC, USA Today, The Associated Press, and the International Bottled Water Association)